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ClassicsOnline Home » VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Rubinsky) - A Prole do Bebe, No. 2 / Cirandinhas
Heitor VilIa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Piano Music, Vol. 2
The musical persons of Heitor Villa-Lobes has always been discussed and evaluated in light of the rôle of Brazilian traditional music in shaping his musical idiom. There is nothing strange in focusing on the nationalist elements of a composer's style, and the history of Western music provides ample evidence of the productive influence of the native folklore of composers. The issues surrounding the works of Villa-Lobos, and, by extension, those of other Latin American composers who have achieved international recognition, acquire another dimension owing to the fact that they are too often perceived as stemming from an exotic, peripheral tradition that should be evaluated and analyzed against European or mainstream musical traditions. Villa-Lobos himself was made aware of the vagaries of such critical categories when living in Paris between 1923 and 1930. In one of two articles that he wrote for the Brazilian newspaper O País in 1929, ha addressed what he saw as a misperception by Europeans about the relative rôle of their music in shaping his style:
"A good example of the Europeans' ignorance is that they see an apparent affinity between our music, native and popular, and some compositions of Stravinsky, owing to the latter's universal influence. Some European critics and chroniclers have perhaps heard in Paris some Brazilian compositions based on Indian and traditional carnival themes by our popular composers. Then they said in the press, having landed the original form, that this work obviously had been influenced by Stravinsky, because it contained phrasing, development and exaggerated rhythmic accents that were peculiar to the Russian composer. … However, those parallel phrases and exaggerated accents to which the critics referred were nothing more than either religious songs of our Indians or ponderous melodies created by our popular composers, all of which was highly familiar to us" (quoted from Eero Tarasti, Heitor Villa-Lobos: The life and works, 1887-1959, London: 1995, p. 49).
Villa-Lobos's trip to Paris was the result of fortuitous encounters between the composer and Darius Milhaud in 1918 and Arthur Rubinstein the following year in Rio de Janeiro. These meetings paved the way for his arrival in Europe, where his reputation already preceded him. In one of his articles for La Revue musicale, for example, Milhaud commented on his encounter with the young Brazilian composer, highlighting his rough and hardy temperament. There is no denying that Villa-Lobos's stay in Paris bad a significant impact on his stylistic evolution and helped to consolidate his reputation as a cosmopolitan composer whose vocabulary transcended mere exoticism. From this perspective, he could stand side-by-side with composers such us Stravinsky, Bartók, Kodály, Copland, and many others whose identities were shaped by merging national and international elements. It is the native element in his music, however, that continues to exert the strongest appeal to audiences worldwide. Villa-Lobos himself was thoroughly conscious of his immersion in Brazilian folklore, as he made clear in countless speeches and interviews throughout his career. In one of them, his prose seems to emulate the luscious sonorities of his music: "Yes, I'm Brazilian – very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I don't put a gag on the tropical exuberance of our forests and our skies, which I intuitively transpose to everything I write," Then, when pressed with questions about the rôle of Brazilian folklore in his music, he resorted to an all-encompassing formula that became legendary: "I am Brazilian folklore." He was also fond of spreading anecdotal tales about his travels throughout Brazil in search of material to use in his compositions. In one of the most notorious, he told unsuspecting foreign audiences about being captured by cannibal Indians in the heart of the Amazon forest, after which he narrowly escaped being eaten. In general, his accounts of his travels should be taken with caution, because his exuberant personality had a propensity for flamboyance and over-elaboration. Ultimately, the specific places that he visited are irrelevant for an understanding of his musical vocabulary, since he rarely quoted directly from folk-music, preferring instead to use the folk melodies as a stimulus for further elaboration and transformation, as any inventory of his most common technical devices would confirm: the juxtaposition of contrasting materials, preventing a rational sequence of events; the use of long pedal-points that create a hypnotic and ambiguous harmonic environment; angular rhythms derived from Afro-Brazilian music; the frequent use of polyrhythms to create a multi-layered texture; the relentless repetition of small melodic modules and motifs, in a process resembling the shamanistic qualities of Amerindian music; and the colourful use of dissonance. These elements had already coalesced into a distinctive style by the time Villa-Lobos arrived in Paris, and his confidence in the validity of his experiments prompted him to remark that he had not gone to Europe to study with anyone, but rather to show what he had done.
Villa-Lobos's approach to composition reveals some unexpected and anecdotal features. According to the testimony of several friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, he often considered a work to be completed the moment it took its definitive shape in his mind, even if it still needed to be written down. This helps to explain some discrepancies between the works listed in his personal catalogue and those that have actually been completed, since it is very likely that he listed works which he later failed to put down on paper. Even judging from the works that have survived, the scope and diversity of his output are quite remarkable. This stylistic variety is well represented in his works for piano, an instrument for which he wrote with great confidence and understanding of its distinctive resources. It was also through his piano compositions that he first drew international attention, particularly those works inspired by the imaginary world of childhood. Villa-Lobos's use of familiar folk material or children's round songs was also important for his career as educator. When he returned to Brazil in 1930, he embarked on a massive project of organizing and institutionalizing music education in Brazilian schools. The ground-work for the didactic material to be used in these schools was the Guia Prático, a projected six-volume series that would provide a comprehensive coverage of different types of melodies, both national and international, and that would also function as an inventory of the traditional melodies of Brazil. Only the first volume, comprising 137 folk melodies for two- or three-voice chorus, or piano, or instrumental ensemble, was completed. Then, from 1932 to 1949, Villa-Lobos arranged for piano several of the melodies collected in the Guia Prático, which were published in eleven separate volumes also entitled Guia Prático. This collection is a major source of reference for the folk melodies found elsewhere in Villa-Lobos's works, as can be seen in several of the pieces recorded here and in other volumes of this series.
Among these pieces are three suites entitled Prole do Bebê (The Baby's Family), each one focusing on a different subject. The first suite, recorded in the first volume of the present series, emulates the world of dolls and the imaginary companions that populate the child's world; the third series, focusing on different types of sports and games, is thought to be lost. In the light of Villa-Lobos's compositional habits discussed above, however, one may conjecture that he may have worked out the composition in his mind and never actually written it down. The Prole do Bebê II (1921), recorded here, depicts a menagerie of toy animals, each one made of a different material described in the title (Villa-Lobos's original spelling for each title, although by now archaic, has been retained). This suite is one of the most complex works in Villa-Lobos' output, and deserves to be ranked among the greatest achievements in the piano literature of the twentieth century. The sheer technical challenges of the collection prompted the great pianist, pedagogue, and composer Souza Lima to dub it a set of transcendental etudes. Musically, the breadth of Villa-Lobos's imagination, already fully displayed in the first Prole do Bebê, is here even greater. The range of moods and colours is supported by a wealth of technical devices, including vibrant rhythms, unusual metres, and a rich harmonic palette that employs atonality in a free and bold manner. Villa-Lobos conveys to perfection the range of animal sounds, as one hears the barking of dogs, the heavy walking of bears, cat meows, and the sound of shattered glass. These are not merely sound effects, but vital elements leading to a carefully articulated narrative that infuses the emotional world of the original folk melodies with a new, complex, and highly personal view. This reinterpretation of the world of children through the eyes of an adult will become evident to anyone who peruses the intricate textures and challenging sonorities of this suite. Indeed, it demands such a concentration from performers and listeners alike, that it can hardly be understood solely on the basis of its source of inspiration. From its bewildering tapestry of sounds, the melodies an familiar to generations of Brazilian children emerge in a completely new guise, coloured by the richness and complexities of their harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic garb: "Fui no Tororó" in No. 1 (A Baratinha de Papel), "Anquinhas" in No. 2 (O Gatinho de Papelão), "Garibaldi foi à Missa" in No. 5 (O Cavalinho de Páu), and "Carneirinho, Carneirão" in No. 8 (O Ursozinho de Algodão). Other features of the anile include elements of jazz in No. 6 (O Boisinho de Chumbo), a highly inventive use of 11/8 metre in No. 4 (O Cachorrinho de Burracha), and some remarkable sound effects depicting the exuberance of tropical birds in No. 7 (O Passarinho de Panno). The Prole do Bebê suites belong to a rich tradition of works inspired by the world of children, which include pieces such as Bizet's Jeux d'Enfants, Schumann's Kinderszenen, Debussy's Children's Corner, and Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye. While this is particularly true of the Prole do Bebê I, the second suite is unique among these works because of the extreme sophistication of its language. It is all the more remarkable that, being childless, Villa-Lobos managed to capture the world of children in such beautiful and inspired works. It should be noted that, while in Paris, Villa-Lobos developed a strong attachment to the group of composers known as "Les Six", for whom the world of children was also a frequent source of inspiration.
The collection of Cirandinhas is closely related to the more complex and musically more adventurous set of Cirandas, recorded in the first volume of the present series. The difference in breadth and scope of the musical features between the two collections is already implicit in their titles, "Cirandinhas" being the diminutive of "Cirandas". The pieces in both sets, however, are all based on familiar children's round songs. A comparison between the collection of Cirandinhas and the Cirandas in the first volume reveals that several of the titles appear in both sets. Even though must of these pieces are simple and delicate miniatures, as befits the world of children, there are some unexpected turns towards a darker, more sinister atmosphere, as exemplified in Lindos olhos que ela tem; in Nesta Rua tem um Bosque, the original melody is supported by a clean, transparent counterpoint, as if the two parts of the texture were engaged in a friendly dialogue; in Todo o mundo passa, the march-like central section emulates the choreography of the traditional game with which the melody is associated, while the two alternating sections of Carnerinho, Carneirão suggest the struggle of a child who refuses to yield to the soothing rhythms of the lullaby. There are many other inspired devices in these jewels. As with the pieces in the Guia Prático, they provide a convenient way to introduce children to some of the most distinctive aspects of Villa-Lobos's style. The Cirandinhas were composed in 1925, while Villa-Lobos was still married to his first wife, Lucília Guimarães, who was herself a renowned pianist and teacher.
The three individual pieces here included represent distinct phases of Villa-Lobos's career. The earliest, Ondulando (1914), is truly an etude for the piano in the tradition of the Romantic technical literature for the instrument. In fact, the piece is also known as Estudo, Op. 31. In spite of its affiliation to European salon music, its melodic material reveals great originality, providing an early example of Villa-Lobos's ability to create emotionally charged and engaging themes. A melody of a different kind pervades A Lenda do Coboclo (1920), one of Villa-Lobos's best known compositions. The marking moderato e muito dolente (moderato and very plaintive) captures the melancholy associated with the brooding caboclo, a mestizo of Indian and white ancestry, but a term also used generically to refer to a peasant. The ebb and flow of the harmony has a hypnotic effect that derives from the regular swaying of the chords, as if they were meant to punctuate the introspective thoughts of the protagonist. In his attempt to depict the temperament of this quintessentially Brazilian type, Villa-Lobos departed from the prevailing influence of French impressionism that was by then considered the modern musical language in Brazil, opting instead for a more nationalist idiom. This piece marks an important change toward greater emphasis on native elements in Villa-Lobos's style, and as such it is of great historical significance. The latest of the three pieces, the Valsa da Dor (1932), dates from the same year that Villa-Lobos met Arminda Neves d'Almeida, affectionately known as Mindinha, who was to become his second wife. Written in a 12/8 metre, the piece unfolds as an emotional voyage represented by the shift in tempo, from fast to possessively slow, as the primary melody is stated three times. In this manner, what begins like a waltz slowly turns into a song and finally metamorphoses into a lament. It is from this process of internal transformation that the piece derives much of its poignancy, and which is clearly embodied in its title.
Villa-Lobos was a composer of great exuberance and seemingly inexhaustible imagination, and one of the best assessments of his musical personality was given by the critic Andrade Muricy, when he said:
"He composed just as he felt, without premeditation and without any prejudices whatsoever, which was a consequence of the complexity of his nature, contrasting, illogical, but of indisputable vitality. He tried to express the vacillating character of Brazil, with its variegated style and its real aptitude for living and affirming itself. As a true interpreter of this instability, Villa-Lobos could only rarely be simple and linear". (Villa-Lobos: Uma Interpretação, 1969; quoted in Eero Tarasti, op. cit., p. 84))
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